A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


The Pointe Of It All - Max Wyman - A Dancing Shoe Aficionado
Sunday, December 09, 2007

Yesterday was a sort of a dancing red letter day. At noon I photographed in my studio Grant Strate (about to be 80) who is a founding member of the National Ballet of Canada. After watching The Red Balloon as a visual appetizer for Rebecca and Lauren, the three of us watched Robert Altman's The Company (with Neve Campbell who also wrote the story). This is a dance film, part documentary which really is only for the serious aficionado. I was pleased that both Lauren and Rebecca enjoyed it. When Rebecca watched real dancer Neve Campbell remove bandaids and tape from her sore toes she remarked how ugly her feet were. I remembered asking Ballet BC dancer Lauri Stallings (photo in colour) if I could photograph her feet. "They are so ugly, "she said, "Why would you want to do something like that?" I wanted to and I did. I discovered a whole new world (notice that Stallings has her name and a personal number on the soles of her custom-made shoes). It was a world that Wyman completed in spades in his essay below. It all began when someone at the Sun (Larry Emeric, I believe) told me that Wyman collected ballerina's pointe shoes. When I suggested a story to him he readily agreed. In those days you could dream up stories. Newspapers and magazines would run them. I miss those days as much as I miss Wyman's arts criticism and reviews.


When the 19th - century ballerina Marie Taglioni rose in her toes in La Sylphide , effectively redefining the expressive potential of the art form, Russian fans were so enraptured that they cooked her slippers and ate them.

Dance fans have always been extreme, of course (and I'm not even thinking about the hard-core toe shoe fetishists who have their own members-only Web site). Drinking champagne from the ballerina's shoe used to be a popular way for stage-door Johnies to demonstrate their adoration ... though if you tried it today you might find your fizz flavoured by an aromatic modern anti-fungal cream.

My own involvement amounts to a modest collection of signed, used shoes that function as memory-prods for some of the most sublime evenings I have spent in the theatre. Among them are several pairs from the magical Evelyn Hart, left,(as Juliet, as Odette/Odille, as Giselle), a pair from Karen Kain, and a pair I removed personally from the feet of Kirov Ballet's luminous Yulia Makhalina.

Yes, Personally - on my knees on a filthy floor, trying to avoid the scummy puddle from an overflowing sink, in a dressing room in the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. She had just sent a packed house into a delirium of rythmic clapping a the end of Swan Lake, and here she was, bouquets still in her arms, flopped exhausted on a chair, letting me unlace the ribbons and ease the hot shoes from her exquisite feet.

Well, perhaps you had to be there. Often, after all, dancers' feet are not a pretty sight. They bruise, they bleed, they develop bunions. Vancouver's Jean Orr, Canada's first Giselle, remembers the days when "we didn't have all the wonderful toe protectors they have today. We just bled into our shoes." Then she'd go home and scrub the dried blood out of the satin with a tooth brush.

Realistically, there is no logical reason why human beings would want to dance on pointe . It's unnatural (human feet evolved the way they did for good and sensible reasons) and, for those who do it, it's uncomfortable and hugely painful.

So why do it? In a word, for art. Taglioni, who premiered La Sylphide in 1832, probably wasn't the first to dance on pointe. The historians place its start as early as the beginning of the 19th century, maybe before, though the shoes in use then were hardly more than slippers, and dancers stayed on their toes for barely a second. Even Taglioni didn't have the benefit of today's hard blocked toe shoes, because they hadn't been invented.

But she's the one who first used the trick to make an artistic impression. And that's the secret of its enduring appeal. Dancing on pointe reinforced the sense of ethereality and other-wordliness that was so vital to the Romantic ballet, with its tales of sprites and fairies and bewitchment. With feet that seem never to end, the ballerina seems to float, immortal, the epitome of feminine virtue, a spirit of the supernatural.

Examine the photograph on this page of Evelyn Hart in her dressing room. it's a typical dilemma for her: which shoes will she wear tonight? Will any of them be suitable? She will often try dozens before making a choice.

Like most professional dancers, Hart gets her shoes custom-made from cobblers who work to her unique last. Not that "cobbler" really defines the task. Ballet shoes are really layers of fabric and glue, baked to provide stiffness. They have a hard "platform" in the toe on which the dancer balances, and a series of thin leather and carboard soles. They don't usually come in lefts and rights; for that matter, a chosen pair may not actually match, since a dancer may have differently sized feet.

But the making of the shoe is only the beginning of the adventure. New shoes are often stiff and need breaking in to allow unforced jumping and rising into pointe. A ballerina must sew on her ribbons, and most will make person adjustments, some of them scoring the soles to allow the foot more flexibility, some ripping out lining, some darning the toes for better grip. Since a principal dancer can get through a couple of pairs of shoes in a single performance, this is an endless process.

The human foot is a complex structure. It consists of 26 bones, connected by ligaments. Seven bones form the instep; five metatarsals form the ball of the foot; 14 phalanges form the toes (two in the big toe, three in each of the others).

The ideal foot for a toe shoe has toes of nearly equal length; long big toes or second toes can be problematic, because they have to support the whole body weight. In the process of lengthening the line of the leg, the point shoe helps tone the calf muscles, and develops strength in the ankles and feet, which lets dancers handle more easily the technical demands of modern choreographers.

The feet and legs are a dancer's most important tools, and they have to be treated accordingly. Dancers have their own rules for shoes. Keep the toenails trimmed short. Choose shoes that fit like a second skin - loose shoes promote blisters. (About three sizes smaller than your street shoes seems the preferred choice.)

To prevent the rubbing that causes blisters and bleeding, many dancers line their shoes with lamb's wool or other padding (though cushioned shoes are also available these days). Foot binding with tape is common, and dancers will also wrap their feet in newspaper before inserting them into the toe shoe. Sometimes people use bits of cotton to separate the toes, and tape toes individually with Elastoplast. Synthetic skin, widely available at pharmacies helps staunch bleeding.

Even modern dancers who work without shoes will tape individual toes to reduce friction, though many don't need to do that because years of barefoot work have developed protective calluses. Vancouver choreographer and former dancer, Judith Marcuse remembers using methylated spirits to toughen the skin so it wouldn't bleed and blister, though it was important to make sure that the calluses that were created didn't separate from the skin.

Former Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal Leslie Fields, a Vancouverite now living on Bowen Island, had her own way of reducing swelling. She would go back to her hotel room after a performance, pour herself a drink, sit on the edge of the bath and stick her feet in the toilet. Repeated flushing kept a welcome flow of cold water on the suffering toes.

It's equally important to keep the feet properly exercised. Isometrics are big these days. A lot of dancers travel with resistance bands to help strengthen foot and ankle muscles (Marcuse remembers using cycle-tire inner tubes for the same reason). Another preferred hotel-room oot exercise involves standing your toes on the edge of a telephone book and dropping your heels to the floor.

Ballet historian Lincoln Kirstein called toe-dancing "the speech of the inexpressible," though of course all dancing is. Every step the dancer takes, every posture the body assumes, is visible; and yet, from that vocabulary of motion, a non visible language of ideas and emotions emerges.

What pointe work contributes to this, along with all that ethereality, is a transformation of the line of the body - a re-proportioning of the torso and the leg's musculature that somehow lets us understand ideas like nobility and tenderness and power in new ways.

When a ballerina poses, unsupported, secure, on a single point occupying only the tiniest piece of mortal ground, her body in immaculate balance, we have an illusion of transcendental achievement and serene glory that is as enviable as it is remote.

When she bourrées with the precision and speed of a knitting-machine on her pointed toes across the stage in The Dying Swan, or when - in a modern ballet, let's say - she stabs the stage with an arched toe, she is bringing us more than mere beauty. She is expressing essential emotion that strikes, without the mediation of words, straight to the heart, straight to the soul.

Today, of course, any and every form of movement is grist to the choreographer's mill, and the dancer's foot is called on to be more versatile than at any time in history. Look at the poised and healthy force in Laura Monteiro's resting feet, the tough undersides of Martha Lenonard's toes (wearing white hat), the gnarled, veined authority of Daylan Pflug, with those ankle tattoos of dancing stick figures. They're the tools that help the body speak the inexpressibles to us. If movement, as we are so often told, never lies, the feet are essential tools of truth.

The Vancouver Sun, Saturday, February 24, 2001

When then veteran Sun reporter and editor Max Wyman wrote the above he had been named an officer of the Order of Canada a week before. He is currently dealing with mud slides in his job of mayor of Lion's Bay. I am sure that his pointe shoe collection has grown considerably since then. I have added two pictures here which were not used by the Sun for lack of room. One is of Evelyn Hart en pointe in the Dying Swan and the other is of Emily Molnar (the last photograph above) showing off her feet.


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